Brothers and Sisters,
Have you ever walked through a time when your perspective needed help; a time when you were tempted to be overwhelmed by bitterness and anger, even anger that seemed justified? How does a right perspective on God meet us when we struggle to understand, interpret, and live well in our world, including with respect to the evil that manifests so often? Well, consider Psalm 73 with me (all quotations come from the NASB translation).
The Psalm opens on a note of praise to God; to God who is “good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart!” (vs. 1). But then, it quickly transitions into an autobiographical account of the Psalmist’s own struggle. This man struggled deeply with bitterness and anger, especially as it pertained to his “envious” response toward the wicked:
“But as for me, my feet came close to stumbling, my steps had almost slipped. For I was envious of the arrogant as I saw the prosperity of the wicked. For there are no pains in their death, and their body is fat. They are not in trouble as other men, nor are they plagued like mankind. Therefore pride is their necklace; the garment of violence covers them. Their eye bulges from fatness; the imaginations of their heart run riot. They mock and wickedly speak of oppression; they speak from on high. They have set their mouth against the heavens, and their tongue parades through the earth. Therefore his people return to this place, and waters of abundance are drunk by them. They say, ‘How does God know? And is there knowledge with the Most High?’ Behold, these are the wicked; and always at ease, they have increased in wealth.” – Ps. 73:2-12
The Psalmist’s struggle over what he observed was so profound that he cynically wondered why he even bothered to live a holy life. All it brought him was difficulty and heartache: “Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure and washed my hands in innocence; For I have been stricken all day long and chastened every morning” (vs. 13-14). He was ready to “throw in the towel” on the God thing. It simply wasn’t paying-off.
Over time, the anguish built up in this man’s soul. Try as he might, his efforts to “understand this” proved fruitless. They were “troublesome in [his] sight” (vs. 16). Nothing changed until one crucial act. Nothing changed, “Until I came into the sanctuary of God” (vs. 17a). In that moment, everything changed. What the Psalmist needed was not the fruit of his own distorted reasoning; not the logic of his own troubled soul. He needed the presence of God and the Word of God. When he entered into that presence, clarity came with a rush: “Then I perceived their [the oppressive wicked] end. Surely you set them in slippery places; You cast them down to destruction. How they are destroyed in a moment! They are utterly swept away by sudden terrors! Like a dream when one awakens, O Lord, when aroused, You will despise their form.”
And so, this man is thankful for God’s protection. He realizes what it would have meant for him to walk away from truth in response to bitter, angry envy: “If I had said, ‘I will speak thus,’ Behold, I would have betrayed the generation of Your children” (vs. 15). He realizes how close he came to becoming like those whose wickedness he so despised and bemoaned: “But as for me, my feet came close to stumbling, my steps had almost slipped” (vs. 2).
As his song ends, the Psalmist transitions from remembering bitter anger and envy into full-blown doxology (praise!). He is full of praise both for who God is, and for God’s work to preserve him in the face of his own threatening sin:
“When my heart was embittered and I was pierced within, then I was senseless and ignorant; I was like a beast before You. Nevertheless I am continually with You; you have taken hold of my right hand. With Your counsel You will guide me, and afterward receive me to glory. Whom have I in heaven but You? And besides You, I desire nothing on earth. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. For, behold, those who are far from You will perish; You have destroyed all those who are unfaithful to You. But as for me, the nearness of God is my good; I have made the Lord God my refuge, that I may tell of all Your works.” – Ps. 73:21-28
Notice how God’s divine work to preserve this man came when the Psalmist himself was helpless and even lost: “When my heart was embittered and I was pierced within, then I was senseless and ignorant; I was like a beast before You” (vs. 21-22). In other words, “I was helpless and sinful in my position before you! I was like the arrogant and oppressive wicked ones!” And yet, even as he wallowed in the middle of such unthinking nonsense, God met this man and rescued him. God moved toward him. God took hold of him. God brought him into God’s own presence and showed him truth: “Nevertheless I am continually with You; You have taken hold of my right hand” (vs. 23). Such an awesome salvation gives the Psalmist great confidence for the future: “With your counsel You will guide me, and afterward receive me to glory” (vs. 24). How then can the Psalmist do anything but praise God (vs. 25-28), ending with the beautiful statement: I have made the Lord GOD my refuge, that I may tell of all Your works” (vs. 28)?
Do you struggle today with bitterness and anger, with envy and discontentment? Do you ever wonder why you should bother with living a life that honors God as you follow Jesus? What you need, what I need, is not better self-talk, or revenge, or “things to go our way for once.” What we need is to come “into the sanctuary of God” in order to gain his perspective, to remember his love, and to experience his work to save us. That sanctuary begins in a relationship with Jesus Christ, as we know him through the Bible, and it continues in our relationship with his body, the church. Only there will our perspective become God’s perspective. Only there will we understand the true nature and the real end of wickedness. Only there will we realize our own wickedness and learn to rejoice in our Christ-accomplished salvation. Only there will we find the contentment that can say: “My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (vs. 26).
Love in Christ,